Victorian Photograph Albums - Victorian and Edwardian Photographs - Glass plate Negatives
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First Steps: Glass plate Negatives

I have a negative number hand-written on the back of my Victorian photograph, can I find out who this is? - in reality the usual answer must be No! However a few rare examples have survived

A case study on glass plate negatives - Hills & Saunders, Harrow Branch
Hills & Saunders
Here the original photographers negative number re-order book survived along with most of the glass negative archive. To make this useable a Manpower Services Scheme went through all the negatives recording what was written on the paper slip that was pasted on to the negative. This is highly unusual for the glass negatives are nearly always destroyed and the books lost when the firm closed. Some collections will exist having been preserved by national museums but mostly only those by well-known photographers.

Your local photographer's images will have now gone, but there is a small chance that the re-order books may turn up somewhere - please let me know if any are found. Two sorts seem to have existed.
1, By Number - here the number sequence was written on the back of the print (26445b) if several poses were taken, they would be lettered a-d for reference. Most small photographers would have used up c.4000 numbers a year, but in London a much higher useage would be expected. So the example above would be 4 to 5 years from the date started (opened, moved or re-numbered). If the negative book could be found the number on the back of the photo will tell you who paid for the photo but not always who the sitter was.

2, By Name - Books were kept with an A-Z of customer's names, the glass negative was numbered for storage on the shelves and that number was written by the customer's name in the book. This meant that 'Mrs Jackson' could walk in and re-order a print without knowing the negative number as all the photos are listed under her name and by date.
example (the dates here are terms at Harrow School)

The Negative books for W.S.Spanton, Bury St. Edmunds (Spanton-Jarman collection) are, I am told, at the Suffolk Record Office, Bury branch. So if you have a photo from this studio with a number written on the back, it may just be possible to name the person in the photo.

On my websites I always list the negative number if there is one, use this, and the estimated date I have put on the photo and c.4000 a year, to estimate the date of your negative number. Start from my 'date a photo' section.
Date a Photo

For the UK there is a list of libraries for you to contact - ask about any negative books for your photographer
Familia Libraries Index

The actual glass plate negatives from the 19th century will look much like a modern negative, but by scanning the image using a suitable scanner a positive can be produced.

Here is an example of an early 20th century glass negative scanned with a light shining through (10cm x 12.7cm).

A similar looking glass positive is in my collection but this is a stereoview plate (Crystal Palace, Sydenham Gardens, early 20th century) and not a negative at all (17.2cm x 8.4cm) and would have been used with a stereoviewer.

If anyone wants a small retirement project - then try finding out where photographic archives are held - in your local area - this would be well worth the effort.

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© Roger Vaughan 2005